There aren’t a lot of picture books that deal with death, loss, grieving and healing really naturally and really well. There are definitely some (I Remember Miss Perry by Pat Brisson, Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola and The Old Woman who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant are favourites of mine on this theme). As teachers, we like to collect these titles because it is always good to have a book to help explore the feelings that come with having to face losing someone we love. When death somehow touches our classroom or our home, we look for a book that helps us talk about this very difficult subject that we tend to never talk about otherwise. Nobody believes in the power of a book to touch us and heal us more than me but I started thinking about this. What if we read books with this theme just because?
Death is a part of life and maybe if we discussed it a little more easily and often, we would be better equipped to talk about it when it does happen to us? It was with this mindset that I decided to read two recently discovered books with my reading group and see where the responses and discussion took us. I found both at the public library when perusing the picture book collection. They came home with me and sat there in my book pile just asking to be read. I’m very glad I got to share them this week.
I started with All the dear little animals written by Swedish author Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by award winning Eva Eriksson. Translated by Julia Marshall.
This book is about three children: Esther, the boy who is our narrator and Esther’s little brother Puttie. One day the children have nothing to do and were looking for some fun. Esther finds a dead bee and decides to dig it a little grave. Our narrator confesses that he is afraid of everything, especially of dying but after a few disparaging comments from Esther, decides that he can write things, like about how horrible death is. Off they go, shovel, poem and little coffin in hand to bury the bee. “Poor little bee”, says Esther, “but life must go on.” Then a plan hatches. There must be dead things everywhere – shouldn’t they find these things and bury them all? Esther decides that this is the unselfish thing to do. Some students thought this was a terrible idea but Alyson’s comment got them thinking: “If you’re dead, do you want someone to bury you and pray for you? Or just be left there?” We all thought about that for a minute and continued on with the story.
The children’s idea grows into an idea for a business. They would call it Funerals Ltd. They would help all the poor dead animals on earth by giving them a funeral. Everyone had a role. Esther would dig the graves. The narrator would write the poems and Puttie, too little for anything else, would cry. They phone all of the neighbours and find a girl with a dead hamster. Esther’s father’s rooster needed to be buried. They found three dead fish in the freezer. (We suspected these were supposed to be dinner) Grandma gave them the mice from her mouse traps. They discovered a squashed hedgehog on the road. Esther was delighted. Then a huge hare. Many, many little graves, many poems. Esther admits the poems are actually quite good.
At this point, Ricky found the words to articulate that nagging feeling he had. “Actually, there’s something wrong here. When they find something dead, they’re happy. They’re supposed to be sad.”
When the children saw a blackbird hit a window and die, things seemed to change. The students noticed that the characters, especially Esther seemed really sad now. “Finally.” The blackbird funeral was their last that day.
The story ends with these words: The next day, we found something else to do. Something completely different. Making this experience seem very normal. Children exploring death and grief. A natural curiousity that brings on a range of emotions. Still a sad, sweet book, but normal. Not too sentimental. Really, an amazing book.
My students had quiet reactions. “It’s a touching book.” “Emotional.” “Maybe they felt sadder when they actually saw it die?”
I let kids write about this book by choosing specific parts to respond to using a Fact/React sheet. On one side they recorded a story event and on the other, their connections, questions, thoughts.
Kevin shared: Fact: They found a dead hare. React: But they were happy. But maybe they were sad inside.
Lisa wrote: Fact: Esther found a box. She put the bee inside the box. React: It’s a good idea to put it in a box.
Hajhare’s thoughts: Fact: In the story a rabbit died and I would be sad if something died, but these people are not sad. React: It reminds me of when a fly died and I wasn’t sad too because I hate flies and bees.
Annie shares: Fact: Esther saw a blackbird hit a window and it was dead. React: I was really sad when the bird was dead. Esther was sad too.
Catriona writes: Fact: They said they would take care of the animals forever when they found a dead one. React: I connect to that because once I took care of a sparrow that was hurt.
Eddy’s ideas: Fact: They found a dead rabbit on the road. React: Why did a rabbit die on a road?
When he shared this question, Catriona gently helped him to see how this could have happened. “A road. Cars go on the road. It was squished . . . .” “Oh.”
Jena‘s opinion: Fact: Puttie, Esther and a friend made graves, coffins and read poems. React: I think they were overdoing it a little too much.
I decided to read the next book because it explored all of the emotions around death and grief. This was something the students really discussed – noticing at times what they thought was the absence of emotions from the characters in All the dear little animals.
Remembering Crystal by Sebastian Loth is a beautiful little book that through simple text (only a sentence or two on each page) and powerful pictures addresses the range of emotions felt when a friend is gone. It celebrates friendship and explores all of the emotions felt in grief – denial, anger, helplessness, sadness and finally coming to a place of peace.
This book had everyone’s full attention from page one. Each time I read a page there was either a comment or some sort of audible response – “Whoa!” “Ahh!” “Oh!” or an obvious silence as feelings sank in.
Zelda is a young goose and her best friend is an old turtle named Crystal. They do all sorts of things together. Read. Swim. Travel. Talk about everything from their fears to their dreams. “They are really connected, ” comments Lisa. “Yes,” exclaims Catriona. “Literally on each other’s back!”
Then one day Crystal is not in the garden. The other geese explain to Zelda that Crystal had a long and happy life and it was time for her to die. Zelda won’t belive this. She thinks the geese are hiding Crystal and goes off in search of her. She looks everywhere and can’t find her friend. Then she starts to remember all of the things Crystal taught her – about music, art, the world. She returns home and goes to Crystal’s garden feeling very lonely and very sad. Finally, she accepts that Crystal is gone. She knows that she will always remember Crystal and wherever she goes, Crystal will be with her in her heart.
Students had things to say immediately.
“If one friend passes away, you can still have them in your heart,” Jena commented.
Catriona had a strong reaction, “Why would they put that in a kid’s book?”
Little conversations broke out all over the carpet. I just sat and listened.
Alyson, “But it’s actually kind of good.”
Catriona “Why are we reading about dead things?”
Sergio “We’ll all die.”
Catriona “You’re not old.”
Here I asked the question, “Why do you think this is in a children’s book? Let’s see if we can come up with the answer.”
Jena: “Because if someone in their family passes away, you can learn they are still with you.”
“It helps us think about it.”
Hajhare: “But it’s sad. I was actually going to cry Ms. Gelson.”
Ricky: “It’s like Toy Story 3. Andy gets older and won’t play with the toys anymore. Crystal gets older and leaves. Well, dies.”
“Yeah. It’s like that with life.”
We continued a conversation for a little while realizing that these books do help us think about how it feels when someone dies and also help us by showing us how people might grieve. Although it might have at first seemed strange to discuss this topic, we all kind of felt calm at the end. Calm and okay.
Reach for these books that deal with death when the need is pressing but don’t be afraid to read them at other times so that children have a chance to explore and discuss these feelings and emotions when they aren’t overwhelmed by their own sadness.
It is really a difficult topic to talk with. Thank you very much for your efforts, Ms Gelson.
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Really interesting post! I love reading the children’s responses as they’re grappling with these stories. Some profound understandings and rich conversations happening here.
Thanks! I really enjoyed this whole process of thinking/discussion with my students. Want to revisit these titles again soon.